What Might Have Been: A flawed adaptation of Ian McEwan's 'Atonement'

Novelists are liars. So are filmmakers. In their search for the truth artists find mundane reality quite unsuited to their purposes. The only solution lies in creating an alternative universe, where events and personalities lead to desired conclusions. In “Burnt Norton” T. S. Eliot observed, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Artists don’t have to. They make their own reality. Artists conflate, in Eliot’s words, “what might have been and what has been.”

Until the final pages of Ian McEwan’s stunning novel Atonement (2002), and until the final monologue in the film, the narrative presents a plausible sequence of events that demonstrates the theme that our misdeeds spiral outward with unstoppable force, working their destructive consequences on others. Apologies won’t undo the damage, and words of forgiveness never come. No act of expiation can ease the pain. As the story draws to its terrifying climax, however, McEwan admits that all that has come before, the fiction within the fiction, is mere empty artifice, a fabrication. The burden of atonement actually lies with the artist who uses imagination and language to create worlds that never existed. His creation invariably leads to consequences he cannot control. He may take satisfaction in the pleasure and illumination he has given his readers, but at the same time he must atone for deceiving them.


The artist at the center of the story, embodying all artists and perhaps especially McEwan himself, is 12-year-old Briony Tallis, played by Saoirse Ronan. Surely the allusion to the early English composer Thomas Tallis (1505-85) suggests that Briony’s role is considerably more than that of a precocious child, growing up in a life of privilege in the years leading up to the Second World War. In the opening scene she labors over her first play, “The Trials of Arabella,” complete with a prelude in rhyming couplets. The clacking of her typewriter sets the cadence for introduction of the ponderous, intrusive score of Dario Marianelli. Literature and music fuse in the soundtrack.

Although she is a gifted child and will become a successful novelist, her vision is quite flawed. After all, she is only a child and cannot be expected to understand events beyond her experience. When she fails to put the pieces together, like any artist, she allows her imagination to supply the connections. Looking through a window, which both separates her from the action and distorts her vision, Briony watches her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her handsome companion Robbie (James McAvoy) lounging on the rim of a fountain in the garden. For no apparent reason, Cecilia suddenly slips out of her blouse and skirt and jumps into the water. She emerges with her wet underclothes clinging to her body, dresses without embarrassment in front of Robbie, and walks quickly back to the house.

The next scene of this nonlinear script by Christopher Hampton repeats the scene from the point of view of Cecilia and Robbie. Cecilia had come to the fountain to fill a vase. In an awkward attempt to help her, Robbie broke a piece off the lip, and in a rage at his nonchalance about the accident, Cecilia impulsively dove in to retrieve the missing piece. The event was innocent but mysterious, and Briony’s imagination supplied an explanation.

Robbie himself takes to his typewriter, not to write a novel or a play, but a note of apology for the misunderstanding of the afternoon. He is the son of domestics on the estate, but Mr. Tallis recognized his talent and paid his way through Oxford. Robbie may be educated, but he is working class and owes everything to the largesse of the Tallises. He also knows that every condescending gesture of acceptance by the family is pure pretense. A letter must be very carefully drafted. He tries over and over, his typewriter also setting the cadence for the soundtrack. In desperation, and perhaps in an attempt to diffuse his frustration, he crafts a lewd proposal as a private joke, and in one of those series of mad accidents typical of McEwan’s fiction, this version finds its way to Cecilia, and Briony. The younger Tallis is shocked at the crude language; the elder feigns outrage, but its bluntness rouses passion as well. Robbie has become Mellors to her Lady Chatterly. They meet, they embrace passionately, and at that moment, Briony enters the room. Not understanding the ways of adult relationships, Briony once more links these events in her imagination. When an actual sexual attack does take place on the estate, Briony leads the police to the man she knows must be responsible.

Five years later, Robbie has been released from prison to serve with the army now retreating around Dunkirk. Cecilia has become a nurse serving the war wounded in London. When she reaches the proper age, Briony (now played by Romola Garai) also tends the wounded, but she and Cecilia have not spoken since the night of the attack. While Cecilia sees her role as joining the war effort until Robbie returns from the front, Briony attends the maimed and mutilated as though her compassion can atone for the lie that led to the destruction of two young lives. Fiction demands more lies, leading to a resolution, either a happy ending or a tragedy. McEwan obliges, until that final scene, when Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), now a renowned author in the final phases of her life, uses a television interview to sort out the truth from the lies she has concocted in her autobiographical novel. Her art and her life have become one. The monologue, shot with her face filling the screen and allowing no visual distraction, is certainly the most powerful confession I can ever recall seeing on the screen.

With all its virtues, I wanted to like Atonement much more than I actually did, but great novels generally prove difficult to transform into great films. McEwan wrestles with subtle, complex ideas and challenges his readers to stop and reflect. Film allows no such luxury. It rolls on nonstop at 24 frames per second. The viewer gets distracted by the narrative, as though nothing more were at stake than a girl’s comeuppance for shattering the lives of those around her. Vanessa Redgrave’s final scene, brilliant as it is, takes us too much by surprise, as though it were part of another film.

Without being able to provide time to grasp the significance of the action, the director, Joe Wright, falls back on standard film technique to underline the importance of the message. I had the sense of the film’s crying out: “Look, Mummy! See how clever I am.” The soundtrack is not the only offender.

When Robbie and his surviving companions finally link up with the army awaiting evacuation, the scene suggests a Hieronymus Bosch rendering of Disneyland. The long tracking shot, enhanced with computer imaging, shows the army jammed into a ruined amusement park, with a Ferris wheel turning majestically in the background. The defeated soldiers, perhaps on the edge of madness because of their ordeal, squeal in delight on the rides they have managed to salvage. At both Dunkirk and the hospital, I felt the heavy shadow of the famous crane shots of Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind.” Robbie may be losing his sanity. He comes through a clearing where the bodies of perhaps 20 young girls lie dead, each with a bullet in her forehead. Is this Robbie’s hallucination? Or is it an overly obvious image of war’s indiscriminate brutality?

In the opening sequences Seamus McGarvey’s lush cinematography captures the beauty of the English countryside, but perhaps the style has grown too familiar through countless episodes of “Masterpiece Theater.” (The same could be said of the elegant sons and daughters of the rich, who dress for dinner, clueless of the horror soon to come.) The battle scenes feature the washed-out color that Clint Eastwood used in “Letters From Iwo Jima.” On the positive side, the cast is uniformly superb. Keira Knightley is both beautiful and obnoxious, chilling and passionate. It works. The three Brionys are improbably different, but they match perfectly the stages of the character’s life: from innocent and thoughtless, to chastened and despairing, to wise and honest, brutally honest.

Atonement, the novel, surely created unrealistic expectations for me. The film is a fine, competent adaptation of a great novel, but I expected so much more, perhaps foolishly. Few films can disappoint on such a high level, and for that I am grateful.

Read James T. Keane, S.J.’s review of the Bob Dylan biopic, "I’m Not There."

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